Khalil Gibran Muhammad

The Condemnation of Blackness

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The Condemnation of Blackness Summary

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The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America by Khalil Gibran Muhammad is a non-fiction book about the cultural ties that cause Americans to associate blackness with criminality, despite the much higher rate of white criminals in this country. He writes about how black identity is tied up in the idea of being criminal, and how that idea was perpetuated by social scientists, journalists, marketing agencies, politicians, and others. The book uses a quote from historian and Pulitzer Prize winner David Levering Lewis: “Whites commit crimes, but black males are criminals.”

Muhammad explains how this problem came about in a historical context, beginning with Reconstruction and the post Civil War era, when black slaves were freed and became black citizens of the nation. Formerly viewed as property, and still viewed in a similar way by many, particularly those in the South, freed African Americans were viewed as a problematic part of society because white Americans were unsure how or where they would fit into the make-up of American culture, economics, and politics. White Americans were trying to determine how much freedom they wanted to give black Americans after the end of slavery, and they looked for answers in the writings and scholarship of social scientists, who provided data from the recent census that they claimed would give a “scientific” understanding of racial disparities.

One of the primary findings of this “scientific data” was the idea that blacks were arrested at higher rates than white Americans. This, scientists believed, linked black Americans to the idea of deviance and criminality, which they determined must be part of their biological or racial makeup. Because slavery had ended and everyone believed that in the Jim Crow era of a “separate but equal” United States everyone had an equal chance at success, this higher arrest rate indicated a problem, particularly for black men. Black men began to constitute the majority of inmates in prisons in the north, where blacks were not the majority. Social scientists took this as a cue that there was something wrong with black men – that in some way, they were inherently criminal people.

Muhammad makes it clear, of course, that this kind of racial profiling and the incorrect use of racial data were the driving force behind continued discrimination of African American people in America, suggesting that it lead to current issues around police brutality and violence. Muhammad also makes some interesting comparisons about other minority and immigrant groups in the United States that were treated differently during what he calls the “racial data revolution.” During this period, social scientists, journalists, and other humanitarian advocates began to change media and academic perception around the idea that Irish, Italian, and other immigrants were inherently criminal – something that was perpetuated during the late 1800s and early 1900s. As these other immigrant groups were rehabilitated and taken out of the prison system, black men remained incarcerated and stigmatized as criminal. Immigrants began to be grouped into the same category as whites, while blacks remained on the sidelines.

The result of this injustice was that white criminals had the chance to argue for themselves in court, and be heard by police officers, politicians, and other law enforcement. People began to advocate for white criminals, offering up poverty and lack of education as reasons why certain crimes were committed. Despite the fact that most African Americans were experiencing a similar lack of education and resources and committed crimes for many of the same reasons, they weren’t and still aren’t given the same privilege under the law. Black men continue to be presumed guilty, to be presumed criminal. While white men are able to commit crimes without anyone making the argument racial, black criminals or suspects don’t have the same luxury. Muhammad makes it clear that because of this injustice, it is impossible for African Americans to gain the same social and political standing in the United States. The association of black identity with criminal identity is perhaps one of the largest issues underlying contemporary racial discrimination, and its presence is still felt today.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad is an American academic and a professor at Harvard. He teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Radcliffe Institute. A historian by discipline, he also served as the former director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a research organization based in Harlem that operated under the New York Public Library system. Considered a scholar at the forefront of racial research and race studies in America today, The Condemnation of Blackness is Muhammad’s first book.